CHICAGO -- Joseph, a precocious 12-year-old voracious reader, worries that there soon won't be a librarian to help him with his research project on anthrax. His fears are well-founded. Public libraries and libraries in schools and colleges are now struggling with or foreseeing a shortage of qualified candidates to fill growing vacancies in the profession.
"We haven't reached an acute staffing shortage yet," said American Library Association (ALA) President John W. Berry. "But librarians must address recruitment and diversity concerns now. Today's librarians are trained information specialists, the human search engines we increasingly count on to help us sort through information, especially in our current crisis." The ALA and libraries nationwide are seeking to inform the public about this issue through The Campaign for America's Libraries, a new public education campaign (www.atyourlibrary.org).
Based on Census data, more than one-quarter of all librarians with master's degrees will reach the age of 65 before 2009. This data does not take into account early retirement, death or other reasons for leaving the profession before the age of 65.
With one of the highest median ages of any occupation (47 years old), librarianship is a career with a frequent need to replenish itself. Additionally, the Monthly Labor Review estimates that the industry most affected by baby-boomer retirements is educational services. While the impact of retirement varies depending on geography and library type, the crunch is being felt across the country.
More than 125,000 librarians now work in academic, school and public libraries across the country. Many librarians come to the profession as a second or third career, which accounts in part for the high median age of librarians. When asked why they made the switch, these career changers cite everything from the thrill of the hunt for information to a desire to "give back" and connect people with free resources to a desire to streamline and improve research methods.
As the needs of library users change and evolve, so are libraries and librarians. "What has kept me challenged and engaged these past 11 years is the changing role of technology in libraries," said Maira Liriano, director of reference for the Chicago Public Library. "When I first started out, an office of 12 shared two computers. Very quickly that changed to not only each librarian having their own PC, but also their own email address... The fact that librarians embraced this change and empowered others to use technology to seek information definitely helped in keeping me attracted to this profession."
"Librarians are uniquely positioned to offer the high-tech, high-touch services and free resources that our communities need to stay connected to each other and to the world," Berry said. "We invite people to learn more about this dynamic and important career."
About 95 percent of public libraries offer public Internet access and classes to teach computer skills. Academic libraries like the Alliance Library System in Illinois are leading the way in 24/7 online reference service. Libraries are paying for online databases, making them available to library patrons for free, and educating users on how to use them. School library media specialists like Betsy Barnett in Colorado are helping students research and create multimedia presentations.
Other changes also are afoot in the library world. With the 2000 Census documenting the trend toward a non-white majority in the United States, libraries are building multilingual collections, offering Internet classes in Spanish and focusing on adding staff from different races and ethnicities.
"The fact that librarians are serving increasingly diverse communities must be reflected in our workforce," Berry said. One way the ALA is addressing this concern is through the Spectrum Initiative, which has awarded more than 50 scholarships for minority students over the past four years. About 30 of these scholars have graduated, and most of them are now working in the library field. The Florida Library Association has created a minority librarian recruitmentcommittee to focus on diversity. The Ocean County (N.J.) Library formed a diversity committee and has added bilingual staff and increased internship and trainee opportunities focused on increasing diversity.
Completion of a Masters of Library Science (MLS) degree is the on-ramp to a career as a librarian. There are 58 accredited programs in the United States and Canada. While not every state has a graduate school of library and information science, distance education programs are improving access to library education. The MLS opens more doors than the ones that lead into libraries. At the School of Communication, Information and Library Studies at Rutgers University, the courses in the MLS program are organized around six themes in the field of library and information science: human-interaction; information access; information and society; information systems; management; and organization of information. Skills in these arenas are useful in many fields.
Library school placement centers report that a vast majority of their graduates find work within six months after graduation. "Many institutions have invited me to apply for their system before my graduation," said Spectrum scholar Terry Carlson. "These kinds of opportunities - where the employers come looking for you - do not happen too often, usually the opposite."
For more information, visit the ALA's Web page at: http://www.ala.org/hrdr/.